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The recent media obsession over superinjunctions could lead to the unthinkable: censorship of web content here in the UK.

The story goes like this. If there is information about you that could reach the public domain and may harm you as a result, British courts may grant you an injunction. This power was designed to protect individuals from harassment, abuse or violence as a result of the information becoming public.

A recent development is the superinjunction: a ruling that prevents even the existence of the injunction being made public. There is also such thing as a hyperinjunction. This prevents the existence of the injunction being discussed even by MPs or lawyers.

It costs between £50,000 and £100,000 to take out a superinjunction, and so far only men have done so. The superinjunctions themselves throw up all kinds of issues around freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and their inherent discriminatory nature due to the costs involved. There is effectively a two-tier system when it comes to personal privacy.

The upshot is that rich people have a way to protect their wholesome public image through the use of superinjunctions preventing media reporting, even if journalists consider the information to be in the public interest.

Putting the free speech argument aside, I'd like to examine to impact on social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter became embroiled in the superinjunction story on 8th May when an account was set up on the site that started posting alleged details of various superinjunctions involving celebrities (for legal reasons let's not mention the name of the account here, but it's not hard to find).

If the tweets were true, not only were they breaking the law, but they were clearly making a mockery of the rulings. Information could be published online that was not printable in the traditional press.

The government acknowledges that the current situation is untenable, and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt proposes that new watchdogs could be appointed to police social media.

This throws up a number of questions:

  • The internet in the UK is, as far as can be established, independent and unregulated. Individual websites can be legally challenged over their content, but the flow of information is notoriously difficult to control, particularly with sites that are hosted abroad. After all, the system was designed to be robust and failsafe.
  • It's impossible to stop someone posting information online that isn't true. In the same way, a particularly belligerent tweeter could stand at Speakers' Corner and shout the latest celebrity rumours (It's up to the crowd to decide if they're true or not). 

    The different between Speakers' Corner and Twitter is in the number of people that can be reached at one time by one person.

  • It seems inherently wrong that anyone should be able to disseminate written information about anyone else with impunity. Site owners can be pressured by the courts to reveal user data, but any whistleblower worth their salt will be tweeting from an internet cafe using false details, so it's hard to see how they could be tracked down. 

    If individuals are falsely implicated in a tweet, the information may be seen by thousands or even millions of people. Even if it's not true, the damage to that person's reputation might be significant. Jemima Khan has already come forward to publicly deny claims made in the recent tweets.

  • If watchdogs were created, who would the members be: Police? Lawyers? Civil servants? Would any of these services having the capacity to trawl through the millions of posts that are created each day?

    Would the watchdogs be truly independent? It is likely that government pressure would be used to influence such a group. What if they started censoring the views of charities or NGOs that happened to disagree with government policy?

For me, one of the problems seems to be that we treat information from different sources in different ways. People naturally tend to believe something more if it's written down.

It has also been shown that if the reader has less time to think, they will tend to absorb the information at face value. Combined, these factors mean that people tend to give more credence to tweets than they deserve.

It's important to remember that each tweet is the opinion of one person. Unlike much Wikipedia content, or a story in a reputable newspaper, the information isn't peer-reviewed and isn't fact-checked.

This can be dangerous. In a high-tech case of Chinese whispers, an innocent tweet about an ASOS photo shoot taking place in Oxford Street this January was misinterpreted.

In the space of 11 minutes, the tweet "Street style shooting in Oxford Circus for ASOS and Diet Coke. Let me know if you’re around!!” had become "Shooting in progress in Oxford Circus, stay safe people."

This Twitter panic has occurred many times before, and on a larger scale. An example was the exaggeration over fears of a Swine Flu epidemic back in 2009. With the 140-character limit removing so much of the context needed to understand complex stories, panic spreads quickly.

In the same way that car drivers tend to forget they're hurtling along at high speed in a tonne of metal until they hit something, it is easy to forget that any information that is posted online could potentially be read by huge numbers of people. We tweet thoughts that we wouldn't necessarily say out loud, and forget the consequences.

At the same time, the freedom of speech granted by the service has been invaluable in some situations. Twitter played a key part in the recent unrest in the Middle East and was cited as the primary method of communication in Tunisia when all other services, such as Facebook, had been blocked. Any suggestion of blocking content from UK web users is likely to be strongly opposed.

Twitter has steered clear of the debate, suggesting that it would resist attempts by British Courts to censor the service, "we strive not to remove tweets on the basis of their content." Effectively, you are responsible for the content of your own tweets, and we're just the messenger.

Ultimately there has to be a line drawn between privacy and freedom of speech. Next month, the UK government is expected to have a full debate on superinjunctions and the impact of technology on privacy. It will be interesting to see where that line is drawn, in a debate that could affect the way we all communicate online in future.

Chris Moffatt

Published 12 May, 2011 by Chris Moffatt

Chris is Online Director for Kidcount and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect via LinkedIn or Twitter

7 more posts from this author

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Sam

How is this even possible in a practical sense? What kind of time delay would be reasonable where key words are questionable? This law governs the UK but Twitter is open to people internationally so what happens with the rest of the world? Must everyone be subject to censorship b/c of the UK Law? Will Twitter's decision to include advertising on the site impact the decision for censorship?

Who can answer these questions?

about 5 years ago

Stephen Dyson

Stephen Dyson, Marketing Manager at HMG Paints

Surely the internet can't be sensored, and it would be wrong to do so. As Sam points out the internet is global so would it have further effects, they could us IP bans but a lot of people know how to get around that.
Social Media may be bad for these people who've took out these injunctions but it has also enhanced many events around the world, like the Royal Wedding, watching the tv and internet at the same time gave the event a whole different spin.

It will be a very bad day if the internet ever becomes sensored.

about 5 years ago

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Sam Oakley

Just a couple of things to add. Firstly, uk law can't be applied to us based sites. Our courts have no jurisdiction over them. So if a uk court wants twitter to divulge personal information it has to write to it's equivalent in the us and say please.

Secondly, whilst there's a lot of noise about superinjunctions at the moment, the real problem is our libel laws. In the uk, the defendant has to prove that what they said was true instead of the applicant havin to prove that it is false. You said in the post that if true, the twitter account had broken the law - well either way it's probably libelous.

about 5 years ago

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Sarah Wood

Surely it is the overly-rich, sexually incontinent footballers and actors who are making a mockery of a law that was never designed for this purpose?

Blaming Twitter for exposing men who can't keep their flies buttoned is clearly wrong, but also a good ruse for trying to get some control over a medium which by its nature evades the sort of inappropriate draconian control that is repeatedly applied to a press in this country while other countries are more relaxed about such high-profile indiscretions.

Twitter in particular is a real-time application, it reflects what users believe is happening right now, however messy, inaccurate or untrue that later proves to be.

One of its great benefits is that immediacy,it isn't channelled and censored into a packaged bulletin of news - that gives it its power and we need to live with the risk, not switch off because of it.

about 5 years ago

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David Rankin, OWNER at Photogold ecommerce photography

the easiest solution is for the courts to stop allowing super-injunctions. Everyone knows that Twitter and millions of other sites contain its fair share of bullshit, untruths and innuendo. There's no way of censoring real-time feeds unless you do it in a wholesale, undiscriminating way

about 5 years ago

Daniel Easterbrook

Daniel Easterbrook, Digital Marketing & Business Strategy Consultant at Radium Digital

This is an interesting topic as one would need to look at whether the data/ and or information is prevented on a global scale or UK local level. I am unsure how far a superinjuntion stretches, but why I say this is that if the data/and or information is leaked on a USA server (perhaps even a Bulletproof China domain & server which would never appease a Western court ruling) then surely an 'injunction' that may appear superficial to other cultures would not have to abide by a UK court ruling by any means.

I know when I lived in the Middle East that there was extreme censoring for the protection of the Islamic culture whereby certain topics/keywords such as (gambling, porn, pork etc) were censored. The most disturbing aspects of this filtering was that a friend of mine who had found out she had breast cancer wanted to do research about it online over there and was blocked as she had the word 'breast' in it. So it beckons the point that if a 'superinjunction' was upheld via the ISP’s, imagine if their name/s were common online terms/keywords? how on earth would that work online! Surely the UK courts would not want to impose keyword filtering on ISP's or worse carte blanche to particular words or individuals? It will simply drive content behind paywalls and move content services elsewhere which would be a shame for innovation in the UK.

When it comes down to super injunctions then perhaps it should only apply to mainstream media outlets (TV, media companies, commercial broadcast) not personal twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook pages which by rights are supposed to be 'personal' (apart from brand pages). So I give a 100% NO to 'personal' internet censorship for as it appears to the wealthy elite of individuals which the law in itself could classed as an 'upper class' law all together.

about 5 years ago

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Neale Gilhooley

The internet is a great leveller, especially a leveller of wealth and that is what moves the law courts of the UK into action – which is exactly why we need freedom online. Great wealth can be converted into power over freedom of speech, or can user it to stop people suing you by dragging out a case for years.

Surely once the beans have been spilled electronically then the super injunctions ought to fall out of use. But beware Tweeters you may face a contempt of courts case if you use your own name and can be traced!

about 5 years ago

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Chris Worsley

The whole concept of 'if you're rich enough, you can block anything' is repulsive to me and contra-intuitive to any form of natural justice.

The net is full of rumours and suppostions, its all constantly changing, constantly irrelevant and constantly entertaining. If you misbehave accept the consequences or laugh along with everybody else.

The alternative is a virtual reconstruction of an ancienne regime where some are beyond reproach. Look what happened last time round - they lost their heads.

about 5 years ago

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